ALLOWING teenagers going through puberty even a little alcohol could increase their chances of becoming heavy drinkers in later life, according to a new report.
The findings will come as a shock to parents who believe that allowing teenagers a small glass of wine with a meal actually helps them adopt a more measured attitude to alcohol.
Researchers say changes in the developing brain during puberty could explain the connection between drinking as pubescent teenagers and relationships with alcohol later.
The research, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, showed that the higher drinking levels in later life only applied to those who drank between the ages of 12 and 14, rather that post- puberty.
The study, carried out by the University of Heidelberg in Germany, claimed this would also be true for drugs.
The research will make worrying reading for parents as the most up-to-date figures on Scottish teenagers’ alcohol and drug use showed 44 per cent of 13-year-olds and 77 per cent of 15-year-olds have had an alcoholic drink.
The statistics, from the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use National Report between 2010 and 2011, also discovered that 54 per cent of 13-year-olds who have had alcohol have admitted to being drunk at least once.
Author of the most recent study, Dr Miriam Schneider, said: “Common thinking in alcohol research was that the earlier adolescents begin, the more deleterious become their drinking habits.
“However, a closer look at the statistics revealed a peak risk of alcohol-use disorders for those beginning at 12 to 14 years of age, while even earlier beginners seemed to have a slightly lower risk.
“Since timing of puberty is not a simple function of chronological age, and also greatly differs between the sexes, the pubertal phase at first drink may therefore represent a stronger and better indicator for subsequent alcohol-related problems than simply the age.”
Researchers looked at 152 females and 131 males who had their first alcoholic drink while going through puberty.
They then assessed their drinking behaviour at ages 19, 22 and 23 via interviews and questionnaires.
A further animal study examined the effects of mid-puberty or adult alcohol exposure on 20 male rats.
Dr Schneider said: “Both studies revealed that those individuals that initiated alcohol consumption during puberty tended to drink more and also more frequently than those starting after puberty.
“Puberty is a very critical developmental period due to ongoing neurodevelopmental processes in the brain.
“Prevention work therefore needs to increase awareness of specific risks and vulnerability related to puberty.”
Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol has been well documented with recent figures showing that the country has the eighth-highest level of alcohol consumption in the world.
The research has been welcomed by Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. She said: “This further confirms that an alcohol-free childhood is best.
“But we should be careful not to put all the blame on young people as they are simply reflecting the society they see all around them.”
Colin Wilkinson, secretary of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said: “Here we go again. Here is a new bit of research which contradicts other advice which has been that introducing youngsters to alcohol in a sensible way was a good thing. What advice are they going to give next?”